Suicide Journalism on the Crazy-Mean Streets of Tijuana
The editors and reporters of the Zeta weekly risk their lives with every issue—and nobody reads them more closely than the cartels.
TIJUANA, Mexico—On Friday mornings before daybreak, trucks bearing the slogan “Free as the wind” deliver tens of thousands of newspapers to an old-fashioned network of vendors, who stand at intersections across the city, right up to the line at the United States’ busiest border crossing, handing hot-off-the-press newsprint to groggy international commuters.
The small team of intrepid reporters who keep the weekly newspaper, Zeta, stocked with some of the country’s most fearless journalism were under heavy police protection this week, after state authorities anonymously warned the editorial staff of an impending attack, in retaliation for last week’s front-page story: “The Jalisco Cartel’s Most Wanted.”
By Monday it became apparent that among the thousands who read the story was a cartel operative nicknamed Goofy, whose face was plastered across the cover, along with seven other members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel plus one from the Sinaloa cartel.
The plan to shoot up the newspaper’s headquarters has been, apparently, postponed, in light of the heavy police presence now at Zeta headquarters.
But what happened this week is hardly new for the weekly publication, which has a long history of standing up to the cartels operating in the city.
The story that upset local members of Jalisco New Generation was just official state confirmation of an open secret. According to the DEA this cartel has become the fastest growing drug trade organization in Mexico since splintering from the Sinaloa cartel in 2010, exploding in the last year after taking over territory once controlled by the quasi-religious Knights Templar cartel.
The poorly kept secret is that the Jalisco New Generation Cartel has aligned itself with what remains of the crippled Tijuana cartel, which was founded by the Arellano Felix brothers. In their heyday they were responsible for 40 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S., but their organization has—through death or arrests—been largely eradicated from the local scene.
Together, the Jalisco and Tijuana cartels, in allegiance with the nearby Juarez cartel, are at war against the Sinaloa cartel, whose founder Joaquín Guzmán Loera, more commonly referred to as “El Chapo,” sits behind bars in Juarez awaiting extradition to the United States.
Baja California state authorities have spent more than a year publicly denying that the Jalisco cartel has emerged as a key player in the Tijuana drug-trade scene—as Zeta reported in last week’s retaliation-fueling cover story. But now authorities finally have admitted the hushed truth.
“The cartel itself hasn’t reached this border,” a spokesman for the Baja California security secretary, Adrian Garcia, told me in May of last year, even as I reported on a half-dozen severed heads that were strewn across Tijuana over the course of several days, along with warning messages signed by an unheard of group calling itself the New Generation Cartel of Tijuana—an obvious mashup, signalling an alliance between the Jalisco and Tijuana organizations.
Despite the authorities’ denial, the weekly rag Zeta was spearheading reporting on the new cartel alliance when I spoke to the editorial staff that week, and they continue to do so today.
As I pulled up to the newspaper office on Thursday evening the paper’s headquarters were swarming with patrol vehicles, and a half-dozen uniformed men and women stood guard with machine guns by the door.
The men Zeta featured on the cover of the last issue are wanted in connection with the spate of gruesome killings that has shaken the city in recent months. Roughly 800 people have been murdered in Tijuana since January. Compare that to Tijuana’s more populous sister city across the border, San Diego, which had fewer than 80 during the same period.
The state has reached its most violent period in 11 years, worse now than the infamous period of drug violence that brought Tijuana to its knees around 2008, a year in which a staggering 843 people were murdered.
With 92 people murdered in Tijuana last month, the city now is well on its way to outdoing its gruesome 2008 tally—and still has three weeks before New Year’s Day in which to do so.
On Thursday, as I met with the general director of Zeta at the heavily guarded offices, her reaction to yet another threat against the newspaper seemed business-as-usual.
“I’ve been doing this for 26 years, and for 12 of them I’ve been followed by bodyguards,” said Adela Navarro Bello, the general director of Zeta, suggesting that the threat of an impending attack is nothing new. “I’m proud to say we have the bravest team of journalists around, and they’ve just continued their work this week, unfazed.
“A few weeks before this latest threat,” she said, “outside journalists revealed to us that they had been offered money by the state government to launch a smear campaign against me and the newspaper—an offer our colleagues turned down.”
She was referring to officials with the office of the governor of Baja California, Francisco Vega Lamadrid, who, as I reported last week, is one of half a dozen Mexican governors facing scandal and scrutiny over allegations of illegal enrichment.
The paper has a long-standing history as a thorn in the side for not only drug-pushing organizations, but also those who peddle politics.
Navarro Bello, a Tijuana native who became the first female editor of the small paper in her early twenties, has proven herself a courageous defender of the not-so-free press in Mexico. She won the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award in 2007—like the newspaper’s founder did before her—among myriad other prizes for her integrity and intrepid reporting.
“They want to silence us with bullets,” she said after receiving the CPJ’s award. “The government does not always directly restrict the press, but it is often unable or unwilling to address violence and insecurity, making it a silent accomplice.
“In Mexico, the greatest enemy of a free press can be found in one dangerous equation: Corrupt authorities, plus organized crime, equals impunity,” she said.
Zeta is all too familiar with this arithmetic.
Its stories are bulletproof—as are the windows in its office building—but, sadly, its journalists are not.
In 2004, the newspaper’s co-editor, Francisco Ortiz Franco, was murdered in broad daylight, in front of his two children, two blocks from the Tijuana police station. He had taken a week off work to seek treatment for what probably was stress-induced facial paralysis, and was killed leaving the doctor’s office. The following day, two editors resigned.
The murders were ordered by one of the Tijuana cartel’s seven Arellano Felix siblings, in retaliation for FBI-released photographs the journalist published in Zeta, which revealed the Tijuana cartel’s leaders and members were using official police credentials as part of their operating procedures.
The Zeta office building sits on a residential street, nestled in the shadow of the business empire built around the home of former Tijuana mayor Jorge Hank Rhon—a casino mogul and heir to the political clout of his father, who was a veritable “dinosaur” of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI), which enjoyed more than seven decades of uninterrupted power in Mexico. His dad served as the mayor of Mexico City, the mayor of the politically influential city of Toluca, the governor of Mexico State, the secretary of tourism, and the secretary of agriculture during his political career.
Hank, however, has ambitions beyond politics.
From the Zeta offices, one gets the occasional whiff of Hank’s staggering collection of rare and endangered lions, and tigers, and bears… and thousands of other exotic animals from giraffes and zebras to enormous hippopotamuses and little guinea fowl that freely roam the heavily guarded driveway leading up to the fortress and private zoo of a man who boasts he owns hundreds of pairs of crocodile skin shoes.
Navarro Bello sees in all that a certain grim irony. “This office has been here forever,” she said. “Hank built all of this around us, but we were here before most of it.”
The blocks surrounding the newspaper are like an amusement park of Hank-related folly: In addition to his private menagerie and sprawling fortress, there’s the German school he built for some of his 19 children to attend; the massive Caliente casino, racetrack, and sports betting book; Tijuana’s Xoloitzcuintles soccer team; the soccer stadium he built, flanked with the statue of the team’s mascot, a Mexican hairless dog wearing a cape, cleats, and shin guards—to name just a few of the attractions.
But the casino mogul, who even owned the Icelandic orca Keiko before the killer whale made it big as the star of Free Willy, has received more official reprimands from law enforcement for his animal collection than for his alleged, but very serious, crimes over the years.
He drew heat for attempting to smuggle a rare white Siberian tiger cub—that now lives at the San Diego Zoo—into Mexico 25 years ago in the backseat of his car. Four years later, he was detained by customs after returning from Asia with a dozen suitcases full of elephant tusks, carved ivory, endangered ocelot pelts, gems, and pearls.
He has even been criticized for organizing races in which some of the monkeys from his collection, outfitted with tiny sombreros, ride his prized greyhounds around the racetrack at his casino, while chasing a rabbit, all just around the bend from Zeta’s editorial base.
Hank is known by most people in the city as Tijuana’s crazy uncle, but to others he’s a vengeful criminal.
In 1988, Zeta co-founder and editor Felix “the Cat” Miranda was gunned down by two of Hank’s bodyguards, who subsequently went to jail for their crimes. But, curiously, the former mayor was not implicated by authorities. Thousands protested the assasination, and Zeta began running a full page ad in black ink every week, demanding justice for the journalist’s murder.
“Will your government capture the one who ordered this crime?” the copy reads, alongside a picture of the deceased journalist pointing his finger, eyes locked on the reader.
“We can’t fill all the pages with black ink, the way we can’t let crosses become the skyline of our cities,” Navarro Bello told The Daily Beast. “But we keep Felix’s page black, and will continue to do so until the known intellectual author is brought to justice.”
The convicted killers were released from prison last year, yet despite spending decades behind bars for murdering the Zeta co-founder, Hank boasted of immediately rehiring the journalist’s assassin.
“You grow used to the impunity,” Navarro said, surrounded by framed copies of some of Zeta’s most risky cover stories, which follow the trail of drugs and money into the hands of politicians and drug trade organizations. “We see [the former mayor] driving around with the same bodyguard who killed Felix, but it’s just a typical part of the landscape in Tijuana. The man spent 25 years in jail for the murder, and then came right back to work for his boss, Hank, as if not a day had gone by.”
A government report (PDF)—leaked to the press by a Cleveland State University political science department chairman—analyzed an estimated 100,000 documents from the DEA, the FBI, U.S. Customs, the IRS, and even Interpol, and revealed that Hank had been the target of several federal investigations in the U.S. since 1997 (PDF), which linked him to the founding Tijuana cartel brothers, Benjamin and Ramon Arellano Felix.
The documents alleged that Hank “launders money, distributes cocaine, and talks to prominent dealers to make deals,” noting that he is “considered dangerous and prone to violence against his enemies.” The documents related to the investigation, officially dubbed “Operation White Tiger,” also implied that the casino, steps away from Zeta headquarters, was a “center of criminal activities” including drug warehousing.
Hank and his powerful family “oversee a large number of people and corporations that help the drug trafficking organizations in Mexico to launder money and transport big loads of drugs into the United States” thereby helping those who were then “the most powerful drug traffickers ever” to operate freely and get away with it, according to El Financiero, which reviewed the documents that were never officially released.
The journalists at Zeta watched carefully as, one after another, the Arellano Felix siblings fell like dominos, with founder Benjamin’s arrest and extradition, brutal Ramon’s death in a police shootout, and the execution of the eldest brother, Francisco Rafael, by a hitman clown in Los Cabos, to name a few.
Now they are privy to a new wave of violence that promises to get very ugly as the Jalisco-Tijuana cartel alliance becomes a matter of official fact.
The paper continues in the spirit of its now-deceased founder, Jesús Blancornelas, who survived a 1997 attack that left him with four gunshot wounds, and which killed the bodyguard that he hired after both his lawyer and his accountant were murdered. Blancornelas—thanks to the work of a fleet of 14 bodyguards—died of natural causes in 2006, and the team of reporters who continue his work hope they’ll meet that same clement end.
“They were very difficult times for us,” his successor Navarro told me on Thursday, remembering her former boss and mentor, who once faced the same decisions she now faces.
She remembers that Blancornelas—whose framed image watches over the Zeta offices, surrounded by awards for courage and journalistic integrity—broke down after co-editor Ortiz Franco was murdered coming out of the doctor’s office in 2004. It was a moment the Committee to Protect Journalists has identified as “the opening salvo in an unprecedented wave of violence against the Mexican press.”
“It was the first time I’d seen [Blancornelas] look so defeated,” Navarro Bello remembered, “and he asked: ‘How many more lives need to be lost before we understand that it’s impossible to be a journalist in Mexico?’
“He seriously considered closing the doors at Zeta, but the staff convinced him to keep going,” she said. “We understand the risks of covering the subjects we report on. But this is all we know to do, and we are passionate about the truth. If we didn’t have hope that things could change, we would be doing something else by now.”
The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas called Zeta’s work “suicide journalism.” Since the year 2000, 119 journalists have been killed in Mexico, according to figures from the National Human Rights Committee. Dozens more have disappeared. This year, a journalist has been killed in Mexico every single month, further cementing Mexico’s reputation as one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism.